So I was having a conversation with a cis, straight, white man the other day and he was lamenting the fact that whenever he goes back to North America (from Taiwan) he has to deal with people being offended by what he says. His defense of saying things that are “offensive” (by other people’s standards, not his) is that if he dishes it, it means he’s allowing himself to take it, i.e. other people should say “offensive” things back at him.
I understand this logic! My friend group in high school were the type to shit on each other all the time. We were constantly laughing at each other and I don’t think anyone was offended. So I understand where this guy is coming from when he suggests I just volley verbal abuse back at him if I feel offended. But there are two problems with that, from what I can see. Let’s start with:
What am I going to say? Take, for example, his comment “bitches be crazy.” When he said that unfazed in conversation it was like sandpaper on my ears. He wasn’t trying to make a joke, it was like he was making an objective observation. My initial desire was to respond with some sort of argument for why all bitches are not crazy (#NotAllBitches) but I kept my mouth shut. I’d just met this person, and if he insisted instead of arguing I should just dish some verbal abuse back, what type of nasty comment could I have made?
“Yeah, well, boys are… dumb.”
This sounds like the same thing I probably said at one point in first grade following a recess soccer game, except substitute “bitches be crazy” for “girls are bad at soccer.” Have we not matured past first grade level argumentation?
I think the real problem with just lobbing an insult right back is that just saying something like “yeah, well, boys follow their dicks” is not true of all men! Just like all bitches are not crazy*, not all men are sex-crazed animals willing to cheat on their partners with the first chance they get. Why would I want to lump all men into this category? Why would I want to take away their autonomy because I’m too lazy to make a more accurate, descriptive statement?
Generalizations and stereotypes are LAZY. I think my future rebuttal to all generalizations will be as follows:
“Bitches be crazy.”
“Why are you using such imprecise language?”
“Bitches be crazy is so vague. What are you actually trying to describe?”
“[INSERT COMPLAINT ABOUT WIFE].”
“Oh your wife gets frustrated a lot.”
“[INSERT COMPLAINT ABOUT PAST GIRLFRIENDS].”
“Oh, and your past girlfriends were crazy too.”
“[INSERT COMPLAINT ABOUT CO-WORKER].”
“Also your female colleague. WOW. May I suggest, perhaps, instead of the bitches being crazy, you are just a dick who incites feelings of rage in most women who interact with you. I will offer this present conversation as evidence to that claim as well.”
In that hypothetical conversation, we went from generalizing about all bitches and all men to specifically describing one man and the women in his life. Much better. You don’t know how many times I’ve had to listen to the blanket statement “teenage girls are so dramatic” or “I hope I have boys” from both men and women and think: hello, I was a teenage girl and I was not that dramatic. And most of my friends also were not dramatic, so speak for yourself, but don’t speak for all of us.
I don’t like stereotypes** because I feel like the stereotypes for the groups I “belong to” don’t fit me. I don’t feel like a stereotypical woman or black woman. So if I don’t feel like my stereotype fits me, others probably feel the same about theirs.
So when this dude says “bitches be crazy,” I feel pretty firm in my belief that I am not crazy. So why do I care? BECAUSE THE YOUTH! I know I’m not crazy, but if a young girl hears men talking about all the bitches being crazy, what will she think? Will she start policing herself because she’s afraid men/boys will think she’s crazy? Will she keep her mouth shut to avoid being labeled a bitch by men she’s trying to attract? Will she be more hesitant to stop unwanted sexual activity for fear of being labeled a “fuckin’ tease?” Will she not ask for equal rights and freedom from harassment in her workplace because it’ll look like she’s complaining.
Maybe it’s the ecologist in me, but all of these scenarios seem connected. They’re all examples of the invisible chains shackles to women to keep them in certain positions and engaging in certain behaviors***.
When I was in middle school and high school I did not often speak my mind. I think I was afraid of what others would think of me if I did, specifically that they wouldn’t like me. Specifically that boys wouldn’t like me. As a result, I rarely felt comfortable in mixed company. In college, I guess I was just like “fuck it!”because I started saying whatever I thought. Still listening to the other side, still keeping an open mind, but not backing down from opinions. Perhaps it was this non-compliant**** behavior that allowed me to start to actually feel like a woman. (I suppose before that I felt more like a doormat?)
The idea that offensive language should just be countered with more offensive language doesn’t actually solve the issues or resolve the feelings brought up by the initial statements. This is because we don’t all live in houses of stone supported by societal privilege or the firmness in knowing our identities. People – young people, old people, whites, POCs, heteros, gays, trans, cis – all live in houses of varying structural stability depending on their life histories and current support systems. Offensive language – like a wolf’s breath – has the potential to strip these houses bare. If you want to hurt someone, then say offensive things. But if you want to be a compassionate human being, think before you use words, use more precise language, and listen when someone tells you they don’t like a word you used. It’s really not that hard.
P.S. I might try and submit this essay to some online magazines I subscribe to. If you have comments on how it can be improved, comment below!
*Unless he was maybe partitioning off a subsection of all women and calling that subsection bitches and part of the characteristic of this set of bitches means they are crazy. But he didn’t clarify that and it seems pretty important part of understanding his meaning, so…)
**Granted there are times when I’ve drawn generalizations about things I’ve observed, especially when describing my experience in Taiwan. But I always try to clarify by saying this is what I have observed, it’s not necessarily the reality for others.
***Men also have chains, but as I’m not a man nor have I ever experience the world as a man, I don’t feel I have the authority.
****There’s an excellent comic by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro about a dystopia where women who are labeled non-compliant are sent to a prison called Bitch Planet.